Gaps in ecology research? (midwest US independent research proj)

Hello forum!
I will have the awesome opportunity to work on an independent research project as part of my internship this summer, with oversight from my manager, who is an ecologist.

Through my major in environmental studies and my own experiences, I have figured out that I kinda just want to learn everything ecology-related, haha. It’s been hard to narrow down a topic, but I’m really excited to get some good field research experience! I’m not really expecting to do anything publish-able, but I figure I may as well try to spend my time on something useful to the field rather than a repetitive or well-studied area.

I was wondering if any ecologists or land managers, especially from the Midwest US (I’ll be working in the Chicago suburbs) have any suggestions for a topic I could focus on. It would have to be within my ability working mostly independently without too many resources. I’ll of course be consulting with my manager to see if there are any areas that would be especially helpful to her restoration goals moving forward, too.

Some gaps I’ve identified through my courses/experience:

  • phenology of specific plant species, especially spring ephemerals (a bit late for this, sadly!)
  • id of local mosses, lichens, or shelf fungi (this sounds cool but very hard)



The Rockford Airport cargo expansion threatens one of Illinois’s last prairies ( Maybe there is something prairie related (rare, endangered, threatened species) available


As an amateur malacologist I can assure you there is always more to discover about mollusks. Having spent the last four years in Chicagoland, I can think of a few ideas.

Freshwater mussels are a big one. They’re often very sensitive to water quality, but populations seem to be holding on (in the suburbs at least). To expand that, you could look at species diversity (of any groups) in forest preserves compared to parks or neighborhoods.

Invasive species could also be promising. Invasive mollusks, at least, don’t seem super well documented. I also did some research on invasive freshwater cnidarians if that sounds interesting. Lots of neat research there as almost no one has studied those. I can connect you with my prof who has a grant to study them.

My advice after just completing an independent research project:
Pick something small because it will take much longer than you expect. You can always add on if you have extra time.


Packera glabella is a recent arrival to the Chicago Region from further south. It would be valuable to assess its spread and potential resulting threats to local biodiversity. From speaking with the FPDWC, they’ve given up on treating it because it was expected to arrive anyway due to climate change. Seeing which plants (especially Plants of Concern) it is likely to compete with and replace would be extremely helpful.

Another potentially interesting topic for you might be to help inventory sites. I’ve enjoyed volunteer site inventorying, as well as the 2021 floristic quality analysis at Midewin. You could do plants, fungi, mosses, or whatever else, just keep in mind what @thomaseverest said about narrowing down your topic. Don’t overwork yourself by picking a massive site or a topic you have no familiarity with.


I live right near a small river and it’s always interesting to see what mollusk shells I find when the water is low. I’m not sure how much mollusk habitat will be present in the specific area I’ll be working in, but I will definitely keep that in mind!
(slightly off topic, are there any species I should keep an eye out for?)

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that’s really interesting! I did just notice that species this past summer back home.
site inventories sounds like a great idea. I worked on a project this semester to compile a detailed spreadsheet of present and local but not present plant species for my campus’ natural lands. we mostly used previous lists and inat data, not really any field id.
I would definitely do that kind of thing again. it would be so tempting to try and index everything though, haha.

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Any large bivalves are probably good. If you’re mostly dealing with terrestrial habitats, gastropods might be a bit ambitious because many need dissection for species IDs. Feel free to tag me on anything you’re wondering about.


If you have an interest in bugs, I humbly suggest a project on the ecology of robber flies (Diptera: Asilidae). There is still much we don’t know about these predators, including ecological interactions, behavior, responses to habitat changes, etc. I would be happy to provide literature and/or serve as a mentor if any of that sounds appealing.


Try surveying that area for Thismia americana. If you find that, that should stop the development.


Not in Chicago but this is a Midwestern ecology project I want someone to pursue - what are the ecological impacts of the introduced population of Great Tit that is currently restricted to the area around Sheboygan, Wisconsin (but has been recently expanding)?

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oof, good luck with that! would be such a crazy underdog story.

I recommend NOT picking a project that involves identifying lots of species you are unfamiliar with. Reliable identification skills take time to acquire, so if this project is only for the remainder of the summer, that is not long enough to take on, say, lichens. Your report would be full of either misidentifications or species with a ? after them.

I advise you find a project involving one or a few species which you can easily recognise, such as studying oviposition sites of a butterfly or dragonfly or how successfully a particular plant sets seed in different situations.


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